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Fénix Rising: Alejandra Ayala’s first words

Alejandra Ayala with her father
“This was the first time I’ve spoken to someone other than my parents about what happened,” Alejandra Ayala told Boxing News’ Elliot Worsell from her hotel room in Glasgow. “I needed this.”

Part I – The Rebirth

Having finally risen, Alejandra “Fénix” Ayala wanted to talk. She had, in fact, wanted to talk for some time. Fluent in Spanish, English, and in the process of learning French, she had tried talking back when she was “asleep” – her code for a 10-day coma – and she had tried later, too, when awake but unable to produce anything remotely coherent, regardless of the language she chose.

She had, due to being silent for so long, plenty to say, yet no way of saying it. She also had all these faces in front of her, their mouths moving, words flying from them like bats from a cave. Some belonged to people wearing medical scrubs while others, those she had known all her life, wondered when the day would come that Alejandra would be able to not only say her first words but finally recognise them.

The process, like everything else, would be slow. At first, all Alejandra could do was reach out and touch the face of the man who day after day hovered above her. A face once familiar, it was one she now treated both with suspicion and like braille, studying it, taking in parts of it suddenly strange to touch.

“When I woke up,” Ayala told Boxing News, “it still took me a long time to even recognise that my parents were there.

“Even when I started to remember them, they never said anything about how bad the past couple of months had been for them. They were just constantly trying to make me feel better. It wasn’t until much later, in fact, that I started to realise everything they had gone through. I couldn’t believe it. Unlike them, I don’t remember my operations or the fact the doctor said I was going to die. They’ve been stuck in a country far away from home, where they couldn’t see anybody, and I’m just very grateful for them.

“They’re now constantly asking me what I want to eat, when I want to eat, where I want to go, and how I am feeling. It’s like I’m a little kid but I’m 33. They’re so wonderful.”

To survive a boxing injury is to in some ways be reborn. It is a process of relearning: to talk, to walk, to function. Accordingly, Ayala has in recent weeks been living with her parents, Maria Elena and Vincente, just as she did as a child. Rather than in Tijuana, Mexico, however, the three Ayalas have instead been holed up in a Radisson RED hotel in Glasgow ever since Alejandra was discharged from hospital. It happens to be a stone’s throw from the SSE Hydro, the venue in which Ayala boxed Hannah Rankin for the WBA super-welterweight title on May 13, but of that fight Ayala remembers very little. Her world, for now, is a smaller one, with her day-to-day goals even smaller. She has her mother and father with her, all living in the same room, and tonight she is eating pizza with a side of vegetables.

“I haven’t lived with my parents for a very long time, but it’s been okay,” she said. “At the beginning, even though my head was better and I was told nothing terrible is going to happen, I still had a lot of side effects. For example, if I wanted to go to the bathroom, I would get out of bed and be very dizzy. So I had to wait, sit, and my feet were a little weak. Then I would go to the bathroom and come back. My mum was very good. She would always ask me if I felt okay. My dad, even if he was asleep and snoring, would wake up and say, ‘Are you okay?’ I’d be like, ‘How did you know I was up?’

“They were just constantly on alert and making sure I was okay; also, that I had my medicine and was eating. I lost over 10 pounds and so my dad is constantly telling me to eat pizza and all this other stuff. He’s always bringing me things to eat.”

Perhaps tellingly, the only time Alejandra became emotional during our hour-long conversation was when she discussed her parents. Specifically, she became emotional at the point at which she recalled finally finding out how her mum and dad, two Mexicans stuck in Glasgow for two months, had suffered while she had been sleeping. It was a thought, given all she herself had endured, every bit as selfless as her parents’ actions and love. It is also something that only adds to her gratitude.

“As soon as I woke up, I was very happy with life,” she said. “I know there were a lot of things written online and sent to my phone but my dad was the one responding ‘thank you’ and things like that. I didn’t read anything. I couldn’t. This week, though, I’ve been able to read a bit more and I’ve realised how great people have been. It has made me feel better. I don’t feel like I did before.

“The fact everyone is being so nice – people from all over the world – has made such a difference. The people here, in this country, have been amazing to me. The doctors have been amazing, obviously, but then there are also the people who would help me eat, or take me to the bathroom, or the people at the hotel. They all prayed for me. I feel so happy. I do want to go home, but it’s not like I feel terrible here.”

Not long after we spoke Ayala was due to return to Tijuana, where the plan was for her to receive additional help and support. There, life would look and feel different than it did when she left, but it’s a transition she is more than ready for.

“The doctor told me that for two or three days I will be feeling much better and then the next day I will just be so tired I’ll want to sleep, or I won’t be able to eat, or I can’t walk,” said Alejandra. “One day I’ll be going up again, then the next day I’ll go down again. That’s how I’ve been.

“When I left the hospital, I really couldn’t walk. But here I’ve been walking little by little. Some days I’m like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I walked so much,’ and then on other days I’m like, ‘No, I have to sleep a lot today because that was too much.’

“The doctors said that they were very surprised that I had gotten better in less time than they thought. Maybe I’m just used to working very, very hard, so when I come down a bit, I’m like, ‘Wait, this isn’t supposed to happen.’ But I’m getting used to the fact that I’m coming back from a very difficult thing. I have to be a little less impatient.”

She has faith things will continue to improve once home. She has faith in herself. She has faith, full stop.

“I have always believed in God but now it’s constant and I feel it and see it,” Alejandra said. “Everybody has told me they prayed for me, or went to church for me, and I just feel like the fact that I have become healthier and better more quickly than expected has a lot to do with that. When I see these things happen it makes me want to work harder, not harder in terms of running 10 miles or anything, but harder in terms of not being sad or saying, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ I am more like, ‘Come on, let’s do it.’ Everyone’s looking out for me and that means that nothing bad is going to happen to me right now. If it’s little by little, that’s fine. But let’s do it. I’m not mad or upset about what happened to me. Not at all.”

The scar from Alejandra Ayala’s operation

Part II – The Stranger

AS well as having to rediscover the faces, names and roles of the people vital in her life, there also came a time, while in hospital, when Alejandra Ayala looked in the mirror and saw a person staring back at her she no longer recognised. This, on reflection, was perhaps the scariest reveal of all, for not only did Alejandra see a different woman in the mirror that day, she saw one whose head looked entirely different than the heads of the other human beings who had been gathering around her bedside all week.

Gone was her hair. More importantly, though, gone was a section of her skull, to be found, she discovered when looking down, somewhere in her stomach.                 

“I had three operations,” she said. “The first one, which happened when I got to hospital, took the bleeding down, but then it got worse. They then opened my head and took out half of my skull and opened my stomach and put it in there. I didn’t know that when I woke up. I went to the bathroom one day and finally opened my eyes and started coming to this world. I said, ‘What is this in my stomach?’ [Surgeons had removed a portion of her skull to ease the swelling and put it inside her stomach to keep it sterile and nourished.] I then looked at my head and could see that there was this hole and I thought, Oh my God, what happened to my head? They explained it to me but I was like that for two weeks. They then did the third operation to open my stomach again and put the skull back in place.”

Once everything was back where it belonged, Ayala had to again come to terms with change. She looked different than before and, initially, this bothered her.

“My head injury is obviously the biggest thing,” she said. “They had to take part of it (the skull) off and it looked weird. My eyes looked weird and my face looked weird. Now it’s starting to look better and my hair is growing, which I can’t believe. I honestly believed my hair would never grow back. Right now, it looks a little funny because it’s poking out, but I know it will come back soon.

“Even if I think I look a little weird, after that it just comes back to my mind: I’m alive. This doesn’t matter. It’s the same when I can’t do something I used to be able to do. You know what? I’m alive. Let’s do this. Let’s do 10 minutes of walking or whatever I need to do. Yes, I used to be able to run 10 miles, but now let’s do this little by little. Everything is going to be okay.”

“Little by little” has become something of a mantra for Ayala in the days and weeks since she emerged from her 10-day coma. It applies to both the appearance of the woman she sees staring back at her in the mirror each day, and it applies, too, to the rediscovery of her own biography. That now has some pages missing, as is to be expected, but it is something her parents, siblings and friends all know back to front, every line and chapter easily read back to her.

“Right now, I don’t remember a lot of things until people tell me,” Alejandra explained. “So, for example, they’ll be like, ‘When you were this age,’ or, ‘When you were in Mexico,’ or, ‘When you did this…’ and then I’ll remember what they’re talking about. Also, I have a big family. My grandparents had a lot of kids and I didn’t remember them at first. My mum would mention my aunts and uncles and cousins and only then would I remember them and remember doing stuff with them when I was younger. I had three uncles who passed away while I was in Mexico and I remember everything about them. I’ve been remembering my grandparents a lot, too. The doctors say that I will remember a lot of things from when I was younger before I start remembering what happened more recently.

“Once I woke up, I don’t remember actually waking up. I was still dreaming. The people in the hospital would tell me that I tried to hit them or did this or did that. Everything was like a dream. I thought I was still asleep. I was acting like I was in a dream but was actually awake and alive. It’s been kind of weird to hear about the things I was doing during that time.”

Alejandra Ayala boxes Hannah Rankin on May 13

Part III – The Lost Fight

THERE were just 105 seconds left of the fight that night, but, as with everything she did in life, Alejandra Ayala had given it all she had. There was now, as a consequence, nothing left of her to give, which Hannah Rankin, her opponent, could detect like any fighter with finishing instincts and a taste for victory.

“I missed a lot about that fight,” said Ayala, 14-6 (8). “Personally, to my phone, people have been wonderful and saying positive things, remarkably great things, but other people who don’t necessarily know me, or don’t know about boxing, have said quite negative things.

“The way I see it, unfortunately in boxing these things happen. I had the best three months of training, working with some incredible people, and I was great. I came here with my friends, my family, my brother, and my parents, and I was so happy, so content.

“I don’t remember the fight at all, but I saw pictures here and there. People told me it looked like I was winning for the first few rounds, but, in boxing, sometimes you get hit in the head. Before this fight it had happened to me (being knocked out), and I had also done it to someone else. Sometimes it’s not on purpose. I don’t feel angry about this fight. I don’t feel anger towards anybody. In boxing, some people get hurt or pass away. That’s just life.”

As for Rankin, the victor that night, Ayala directs no ill will towards her, nor begrudges her onward journey. In fact, she accepts that often in situations such as theirs it is almost as hard for the person whose hand was raised as it is for the person whose career was cut short prematurely.

“I don’t have her telephone number or email, not even an online contact, but when I was finally able to write I did write to her,” Ayala said. “I felt like there were people who were angry at her and I really wasn’t. I’m not.

“I know she’s had a difficult life, too, and that she’s not a bad person. I don’t want anything negative to be said about her. She’s a good person and it’s boxing. That’s all that matters. I wrote to her the only things I could write: ‘No worries. God bless you.’ That was it. Then she responded a day later with something a lot longer that I couldn’t read at the time. But I read it eventually and she basically she said she was very happy I was feeling better and wrote: ‘God bless you, too.’ That’s great. That’s how it should be.”

Despite the trauma it represents, Ayala leaves with mostly fond memories of the city of Glasgow. She has throughout her stay experienced nothing but warmth from the Scottish people and has declared her intention to return within a year if possible. She has even bought a Glasgow-themed necklace which she says she will wear with pride once back in Tijuana.

Reminders of the fight, however, are another matter entirely. “It’s funny, I was actually thinking about that recently,” she said. “I have a friend, Sinéad Babington, who is a professional boxer from Ireland, and she said to me, ‘When this happened, I was so sad. I didn’t go on the internet, I didn’t watch the fight, I just prayed for you. But now you’re alive, I think I’ll check it out and see what happened.’

“It made me think that maybe I also want to see the fight and see what happened. But then, when I’m about to do it, I think, No, what for? Because no matter what happened, I still won’t be able to understand or make sense of it. What’s the point? What am I going to say? I’m just grateful I’m alive and that everybody is happy I’m alive. I don’t think it’s necessary to watch it.”

A smiling Ayala is just happy to be alive

Part IIII – The Return

AS far as tough conversations go, a boxer being told they can never box again presumably ranks up there with the toughest. Often, of course, it defines them, this sport, and provides their identity. It provides them also with daily structure, discipline, and routine, ensuring they are, in many instances, a boxer first and a man or woman second.

For Alejandra Ayala, however, this conversation was to be made considerably easier by the virtue of the fact retirement was not an opponent she had ever feared. Better yet, it was an opponent with whom she had recently been flirting, even going so far as to tell herself she would confront him once and for all at the end of year, oblivious to what the future had in store.

“I always thought this was my last year to box,” she said. “This year, in Tijuana, I bought a gym thinking I would do two more fights and then use the money from those fights to make the gym better. It’s not very high-tech, so I have to do a lot of things with the building. But I’m so happy about that.

“When I woke up (from the coma), I said, ‘You know what, that’s it, I’m done.’ Nobody had told me anything at that stage, but I had already decided I wasn’t going to fight anymore.

“Eventually, once I could talk and do things, the doctor was able to talk to me. They told me I couldn’t fight anymore. They said if I got hit again, that’s it. Even though my brain will get tough and in regular life nothing will happen to me, if I get hit again hard in the head, that’s it. I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll never think about fighting again.’”

Though pleased to see the back of it, Ayala’s love for boxing remains strong. Its case is one she has long argued in the face of people who oppose it and it’s one she will continue to back despite being made to retire by the very sport she defends.

“A lot of people say, ‘How can you do it if you’re just hitting people in the head? That’s so dangerous,’” she said. “But the times I’ve been sparring, for example, with some of my closest friends, at the end of the session we always say to each other, ‘You did a good job. Well done.’

“If I were a promoter, or teaching boxers, I would say it’s no good doing it if you’re getting harmed. I’d get them out. In boxing, they try to say if you lose or quit it’s this terrible thing. But no, losing is not terrible. Saying ‘I can’t fight anymore’ is not terrible. It’s good.”

Accepting there is a life beyond punching people in the head is something many boxers struggle to and sometimes never understand. Yet Ayala, a bright individual who has a master’s degree in political science and economics from Tecnológico de Monterrey, returns to Tijuana with a greater sense of self than most boxers I have encountered, even those able to walk away from the sport under their own steam with millions in the bank.

“I know it’s going to be different,” she said, “but it doesn’t matter. I’m just so happy to be alive. I’ll take it one day at a time. I know I can’t work, which is crazy because I used to work seven days a week: promoting, matchmaking, podcasting, interviewing, and also training three times a day. I did everything. It was nonstop.

“Now I’ll be going back and won’t be able to do anything for a while. The only thing I can do is study and do a little bit of physical therapy. I can’t do what I used to do. But it doesn’t matter because I’m alive. I live with my boyfriend and miss him so much. I want to see my friends and family. I want to just take it easy.

“Before I used to think I had to make everybody else better and not care about what happened to me. Now, though, I realise that I have to be better because in the end the fact I am good makes my parents feel better, and my family feel better, and my friends feel better. I have to get better. When I woke up, and couldn’t do half the things I can do right now, they were all happy just because I was alive. Now when I call family, and leave them these voicemails, they are just happy that I can actually talk. When I walk, and they see videos of me walking, they are so happy.

“To help me walk, my mum and dad hold my hands and sit me down when I need to sit down. I’ve been walking now for probably a week, but that’s not bad. My doctor had thought it would take six months –”

“And that you would be in a wheelchair,” her father then added, forever in the right place at the right time. Forever there – to support, to remind, to fill in any gaps. Forever familiar – his voice, his face, his love.

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